January 21, 2019

What if I’m wrong?

It’s so comfortable to be right that we rarely ask ourselves whether we’re wrong. This is human nature — uncertainty is not pleasant. It’s much more enjoyable to be sure of oneself.

In my experience, this phenomenon is true across the ideological spectrum — my friends on the left are as sure of themselves as my friends on the right.

So, the other day, when I revisited an article titled “What if I’m wrong?” it caught my attention, especially because the author was none other than outspoken Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager.

The article was published in the summer of 2002 in OLAM magazine (a spiritual magazine that was a hobby of mine many moons ago), in an issue devoted to the theme of doubt. We had collected a range of pieces from prominent writers exploring the Jewish value of questioning everything — from God to ideas to ourselves.

Because Prager had a reputation of being sure of himself, we thought he’d be a perfect candidate for an article on self-doubt.

He jumped at the opportunity.

Right off the bat, Prager wrote that he, in fact, always asks himself, “What if I’m wrong?” In his usual writing style, he provided four reasons as to why:

“First, it is impossible to maintain any level of intellectual honesty if you don’t ask yourself this question.

“Second, repeatedly asking yourself this question prevents your beliefs from becoming irrational dogma maintained not because the belief is true, but because it keeps you comfortable.

“Third, when you ask yourself this question and reaffirm your original belief, you do so with more vitality and with better arguments than before.

“Fourth, it is very rare that opposing views are entirely wrong. The moment you acknowledge this, you have no choice but to ask yourself whether you may be wrong. And when you do, you can do one of three things: Change your mind entirely, modify your position to incorporate the truths of the opposing position, or reaffirm your original belief with greater vigor, now that you have honestly encountered the possibility that the opposing view may be right.”

If Prager goes through such a sobering process of self-evaluation, why do his editorials offend so many people?

I see three possible reasons. One, Prager keeps his self-doubt to himself. In his case, asking, “What if I’m wrong?” seems more like a private process to help him sharpen his arguments than an opportunity to express humility.

Two, because he sharpens his arguments by citing opposing views and rebutting them, it gives the impression that he believes he has a closed case, which some people can find grating.

Finally, it could be, simply, that his conservative views upset a lot of people on the left, and no amount of humility on his part will change that.

Jews have always been a loud, opinionated bunch. We have major disagreements on important issues. Most of our columnists at the Journal upset people — some readers are upset by Prager, others by Rob Eshman or Marty Kaplan or Gina Nahai or yours truly, or whomever might be weighing in any given week. 

It would be weird if we published opinions that offended nobody. We’re all unique individuals with unique upbringings. How is it realistic to expect that we’d all be on the same page?

The problem is that most of us have a limited enthusiasm for opinions different from our own. We prefer to hang out with people who agree with us. Liberals like to hang out with liberals, conservatives with conservatives and so on. It just feels better to be around like-minded people and to hear opinions that confirm our own. 

The digital world has made it that much easier to stay isolated in our ideological silos.

“The Internet invites each of us to construct a preferred reality, furnished … with the objects of wish and dream,” Lewis H. Lapham wrote in Harper’s magazine 15 years ago. “We need never see or talk to anybody with whom we don’t agree.”

But here’s the thing. You can’t always avoid content that offends you — especially when you’re flipping through an actual newspaper like the Journal. You might see an opinion you love right next to one you absolutely hate. When that happens, some of you lash out at the paper for printing what you consider “wrong” opinions.

Here’s my suggestion: Don’t take it personally. One way or another, every reader will get upset by something he or she reads in a publication that embraces a broad range of community voices.

Reading stuff we disagree with can open our minds. But even when it doesn’t, remember what Prager says: It can reaffirm our own beliefs and add vigor and vitality to our arguments.

On that, I’m pretty sure he’s right.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.